Alarmist Numbers: Female Happiness, Containing Fires and Health Care Satisfaction

Numbers don't lie, right? Wrong. Take a look at three examples in the news.

ByABC News
October 1, 2009, 3:36 PM

Oct. 4, 2009 — -- This month, like every other month, there is no shortage of news stories involving the possible misinterpretation of numbers.

Here are three - on female happiness, containing fires, and satisfaction with medical insurance - along with, I hope, a bit of numerical clarification. There's also a little question on the World Series.

A paper entitled "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness" by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, was recently published and its results were widely described in the media as showing that, in general, women were happier than men in the 1970's but that men are happier now.

This led some conservatives to blame feminism, some liberals to blame women's extra burdens, and others to plug into various stereotypes from men's reluctance to complain to women's hyperbolic emotionality. The only problem with these and many other speculations and assertions is that they purport to explain something that probably doesn't need much of an explanation other than statistical noise.

Most years between 1972 and 2008 the study chose a random collection at least 1,500 men and women of all ages and asked them a large number of questions. In particular, it asked them whether, all things considered, they were very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy.

If the results over the years are graphed, it's apparent that the percentages in the three categories jump up and down in no clearly discernible way. Commentators who pretend that the graphs indicate a steep and steady decline in happy women and a steep and steady increase in happy men ignore these fluctuations.

In fact, the differences between the men's and women's percentages are minimal and could be attributable to almost anything at all or to nothing at all.

For example, for the years 1972, 1973, and 1974, the cumulative results (taken from the linguistics site language log and rounded to the nearest percent) were that 37 percent, 49 percent and 14 percent of the women declared themselves, respectively, very happy, pretty happy, and not too happy. The corresponding percentages for men during those years were 32 percent, 53 percent, and 15 percent.

As noted, the percentages have oscillated quite a bit since then, but for the most recent years, 2004, 2006, and 2008, the study found that 31 percent, 55 percent, and 14 percent of the women said they were, respectively, very happy, pretty happy, and not too happy.

The corresponding percentages for men during these years were 30 percent, 56 percent, and 14 percent. And if we compare the percentages in the late 80's to those today, there are essentially no differences between them.

Are these results really enough to warrant pundits' spouting off about the stress of too many choices, women's roles in the workplace, men's loutishness, and all manner of other issues?